There are seven people running for Ketchikan City Council. They are Sam Bergeron, Spencer Strassburg, Janalee Gage, Julie Isom, Chuck Slagle, Bob Sivertsen and George Lybrand.
Six of those candidates attended a live on-air forum hosted by KRBD on Thursday. George Lybrand was not able to participate.
The following is a summary of what was discussed.
There are three seats open on the Ketchikan City Council, with only one incumbent – Bob Sivertsen – seeking re-election. And most of the other candidates running are new to Ketchikan’s political scene.
Sam Bergeron and George Lybrand have served before on the Ketchikan City Council, along with other public service positions; the others — Spencer Strassburg, Janalee Gage, Julie Isom and Chuck Slagle – have not previously run for local office.
That means most Ketchikan residents haven’t heard their positions on a variety of issues. So, we asked. One of the questions was about the much-debated tobacco tax proposal, which the Borough Assembly has tabled indefinitely. The City Council, though, has been more receptive to the idea and could impose a tobacco tax within city limits.
The candidates in general were all receptive to the concept of a tobacco tax, but most wanted the tax rate reconsidered. Others want the proposal to go before voters for ratification.
Gage said most communities in the State of Alaska have imposed tobacco excise taxes, and as a result seen a decrease in youth smoking rates. The proposed $3-per-pack tax might be too much, she said, but she’d like to see one in place.
“I think it would be in the best interest of the community to consider some sort of tax, considering the statistics on youth smoking and the numbers that it’s dropped in the rest of the state, and if you look at the statistics of youth smoking in Ketchikan versus the rest of the state, it’s much higher,” she said.
Marijuana is a hot topic again this year. Voters last fall approved a measure legalizing marijuana in Alaska, and people can grow it now for personal use; but it’s still up to local governments to decide whether to allow commercial cannabis within their communities.
Most of the candidates were a little concerned about how retail pot shops might affect the town, but they seemed resigned to the fact that it’s legal and should be available in some measure. The main question was: To what degree should retail marijuana be allowed.
Bergeron was concerned about marijuana bars, where people could go to legally consume pot, rather than doing it at home.
“I don’t think that it would probably be in the best interest of us as a community to have marijuana bars where you could come in, off the ship, and buy your pot and get high and then go waltzing around Ketchikan,” he said. “It doesn’t do our community any good. I don’t want a community full of zombies.”
Strassburg owns a downtown store that sells marijuana-related merchandise, and he took issue with the “zombie” characterization. He said most of the other candidates running this year don’t know much about marijuana.
“I guess that’s going to be my strong suit at this table. I meet all kinds of people, all walks of life, old people, young people, all kinds of people that are into this kind of culture; It blows my mind,” he said. “I would never have thought of it until Feb. 24th, even being as involved in this culture as I have been for the last 35 years, I didn’t realize how big it was.”
Bergeron later said “zombie” might not have been the best wording choice, but that marijuana is a strong substance and needs to be controlled.
Water rates in the city have steadily risen over the past few years, in an attempt to balance fees with the cost of producing potable water. But there has been debate over how fair the rates are, with a flat fee for residential customers no matter how many people live in each home; and a subsidized rate for large commercial users.
The candidates all liked the idea of metering as the most fair way to charge for water use, although establishing a metering system would be expensive. Sivertsen said the city is working with a consultant to try to make the rates more equitable. Fish processors, in particular, use a lot of water and pay a very low rate.
“We tried to strike a deal with them to where they’ll do some water conservation, look at changing the way they do operations to reduce their usage,” he said. “We’ll see if that happens or not. I do believe the fairest way to do that is to metering water and it’s not just the fish processors, we have industriual users, too, and commercial users that need to be metered.”
Sivertsen said metering could be phased in, starting with the largest users.
The City of Ketchikan annual budget process starts soon after the Oct. 6 election, which means new Council members are immediately thrown into that complex and important task. The candidates talked a little about their budget priorities. Isom said she realizes it’s going to be a tough budget year, partly because state funding will be down again. She’d like to not raise taxes, and “my priority will be trying to keep as much of the nonprofits at the level that we have as we can. I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do that.”
Part of the annual budget goes toward funding some nonprofit agencies that provide services to the community. All of the candidates acknowledged the value of those services, and several pointed out that nonprofit agencies often can provide services at a lower cost than the government could.
Slagle said he’d like to see more long-range budget planning.
“I’m not as concerned about this budget because there’s so much you can’t do in it, but there’s all sorts of things we can do with a budget five years from now,” he said. “If we started making commitments and promises on what that looks like, then when we hand this thing over to our kids and grandkids, we’ve worked at something for five or 10 years. If we’re trying to fix a budget on a six-month, one-year basis, I just don’t think you can be effective.”
The candidates also discussed the proposed artist residency program at the old Main Street fire station, their vision for the community in the next five years, and how to help the homeless population.
If you missed Thursday’s City Council candidate forum, you can listen to a recording of it, posted below.